“What the fuck are you wearing?!” Eddie Green, guitarist of Shame, spits at Charlie Forbes, the band’s drummer and Green’s best friend, in a freezing cold studio in south east London. He’s just got changed into his showstopper look: oversized black joggers with a garish V-neck harlequin sweater over a tailored white shirt. Josh Finerty, Shame’s bassist and peacemaker, pipes up and sets rippling laughter in motion: “He looks nice!” Nobody believes Finerty but Forbes is smiling, and the cycle continues. Insult, laughter, jab, cackle, dig, giggle, round and round like the circle of life. As Shame release their third album next month, the robust yet boundary-pushing ‘Food For Worms’, the idea of security in friendship and resurrection in artistry is paramount to where the band find themselves today.
Some patterns are constant – new year, new album; new album, new NME cover – but the Shame of 2023 is brand new. Rejuvenated and ready to remember why they started the band in the first place, why they’ve stayed friends for all these years. “We’ve done so many fucking winter albums,” says Charlie Steen, frontman of Shame, looking ahead to sunnier days for ‘Food For Worms’. Forbes, easily and constantly finishing Steen’s sentences, speaks of the “cycle of life in springtime” while Steen promises the band have “planted loads of seeds”. Having written in a new way, in a new place, with a new producer working towards a new sound, Shame seem more themselves. It might finally be time to smell the flowers.
Following the release of ‘Drunk Tank Pink’, their technically massive but emotionally tetchy second album, Shame found themselves in a rut. The year was 2021, and the band kept on writing without ever getting anywhere. “We were trying harder than ever, but we just weren’t capable of finishing a song anymore,” Forbes recalls. The album was doing well – their first top 10 in the Official Charts, five stars from NME where we called ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ “more ambitious and more accomplished than its predecessor” with its Talking Heads and B-52s tendencies – but the ongoing pandemic cast a dark cloud over their planned Socially Distant Tour and eventually allowed the band to play a smattering of dates throughout the year, but not the headliner they’d dreamed of.
“We were trying harder than ever, but we just weren’t capable of finishing a song anymore” – Charlie Forbes
In between shows they tried out new material, stubbornly trying to envisage a future beyond COVID, away from the frustration and paranoia that gave ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ its introspective power, but nothing stuck. “We tried every option. We had this great expectation that things were just gonna flow and they didn’t,” says Steen. After ‘Drunk Tank Pink’, Shame had received a nasty shock when returning to their trusty Windmill in Brixton, home to so many of the band’s contemporaries given the ‘post-punk’ label they never wanted, to find that a whole new wave of artists has come in and were doing things maybe slightly differently.
The music they were making then was “stupidly complicated”, perhaps the product of trying and failing to really find yourself in the way they saw all those new bands doing. “We were trying to be too clever,” Forbes says of Shame’s impressive but difficult second album. Steen adds: “We were definitely writing some songs on ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ with expectations – which puts a lot of pressure, and that’s just like the kiss of death.” So they had to go back to the thing that got them going, away from all the pressure: the magic of a live show. Well, technically they were dragged back there by management, who gave Shame an ultimatum: within two weeks, the band would play a show at the iconic venue, where they got their start, and would have to perform a whole new set of songs. Incognito. It was time to get to work.
“It’s the quickest we’ve ever written anything,” Steen says of the feverish fortnight spent in Rugby (“where there are no distractions”) getting the bones of ‘Food For Worms’ in playing shape. The process brought Shame back to what worked so well on their 2018 debut ‘Songs Of Praise’, which was “writing to play” as opposed to writing “in a deconstructed way”, the frontman says.
“It was like when we started the band, because you have a gig coming up, you want to play a new song, or you need new songs to play a set,” he adds. The pressure was on to have the songs to play, the pressure was off in terms of making sure they were the best songs in the world. If you play a shit song, you don’t have to play it again.”
Thankfully they weren’t shit, and six of the songs now on the record came from that heady experiment. Lead single ‘Fingers Of Steel’, a vibrant, catchy and chorus-heavy rock song about the hypocrisy of social media and dissatisfaction of modern life fell out of the band easily, as did the initially mellow (a new Shame experiment, albeit never lasting too long) and hypnotic ‘Burning By Design’, which epitomises the band’s looser, happier approach to their identity and future: “I don’t care about the songs that use these chords / I am sure there’s plenty more / But I know they’re not the same”. Shame never needed fixing, really – it was just about not caring about the broken bits anymore. Embracing the rough edges that won over the world in the first place (NME’s five-star review of the “invigorating” ‘Songs of Praise’ lauds the band’s “venom” and “lithe vigour”) was the only option.
“We’ll be on the other side of the world and people will ask us about the Windmill” – Charlie Forbes
When the band returned to the Windmill in January 2022 to play the new songs on the stage they knew better than the back of their hand, none of it mattered anymore because there was no expectation. Shame care deeply about what they’re making, but less so about what flashy accolades might validate – or not – stuff they’ve known about themselves for years. “I look back on those early days with a happy glint in my eye,” says Forbes instinctively of the nurturing days of the Windmill.
But he’s also underplaying just how in demand Shame were from the get-go – hyped and celebrated from the moment they decided they should be, the band were featured in NME before even releasing a song, and were entrusted with the cover of the penultimate print edition just two months after their debut was released. “Those teenage years, where there would be 50 different people in different bands, it was a very, very good time.” The 25-year-old adds: “We’re old now – people are a lot more aware of the Windmill as a hub for cutting-edge music. We’ll be on the other side of the world and people will ask us about it. But once you become content with knowing you’re not the best band in the world, it’s fine to accept mediocrity.”
The self-deprecation might hold a speck of truth, though, as Steen adds: “When people first started emerging, there were all these variations in the genre, and people had their own sound and that’s when you struggle. But once you accept you’re your own fucking band, I think we sound a lot more defined now.”
Forbes suggests ‘Food For Worms’ could be the band’s most “dynamic” album. Where ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ thrashed and screamed with crunchy guitar riffs and urgent drums keeping a breathless pace, dexterous but relentless, ‘Food For Worms’ embraces a newfound maturity and forms of experimentation.
“I think we sound a lot more defined now” – Charlie Steen
The band somehow still holds space for those heavy, dark and giddy moments though – often within the same track. “We wanted it to be dynamic, and full of quiet to loud explosions,” says Forbes, naming Pixies as an influence on the frequent huge shifts on each song – like the Lou Reed-tinged ‘Orchid’, drifting from a nostalgic slow-build into a furious confrontation – which give the album its unpredictability. Although Shame have been making their own singular music for three albums now, they needed a helping hand on this one to reach new heights, from the only man harder to pin down than the band themselves: enter Flood.
“It was pretty insane,” Steen remembers of sending Shame demos out to Mark “Flood” Ellis, super-producer with credits including Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, U2, PJ Harvey, Sigur Rós and more, and still can’t believe his response. “He sat down, we were speaking through the songs we had, and he goes, ‘I’m gonna stop you there. I haven’t heard a sausage, but I want to do the album.’” The band, understandably, were a little dubious, but ultimately had to trust this new path they were on – first the ultimatum, then Rugby, now Flood. New beginnings.
The frontman says that Flood’s unconventional mindset continued to steer the ship throughout the four months they worked together, having finished the record in May 2022. “We’d put the songs together so quickly, and then it was the opposite with Flood. We’d be playing a song, and he’d be like, ‘I want to hear it played backwards’ or ‘Now sing in Arabic’. It was all quite, ‘No, I don’t like it’ and we’d be like, ‘I think it sounds pretty good’ and he’d just go: ‘You’re right.’”
The album’s six-minute closer ‘All The People’ was the source of the biggest disagreements, despite best epitomising Steen’s past self-esteem issues and everlasting faith in community as a compass to return to. “All the people that you’re gonna meet, don’t you throw it all away because you can’t love yourself,” Steen sings, calmly warning adoring fans of his past mistakes and proudly showing off his newfound wisdom.
The band also collaborated with Dead Oceans labelmate Phoebe Bridgers on their 12-hour ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ promo livestream. ‘Food For Worms’ standout ‘Adderall’, a deceptively laidback track about addiction that turns into a nasty roar on grief, couldn’t be finished without her.
“We thought the song had an American edge to it, and thought it would sound nice with a woman’s voice,” Forbes says. “By chance she was recording in the same studio as us, and one day we did a trade where Josh went and did some tambourine on her new track, and she came in and did the vocal line on our track – which you can’t actually hear at all.” Have they finally been able to hang out since social distancing has lifted? “We went to an afterparty at her mum’s house after we played in LA. There was an in-house tarot reader, sushi, vegan Mexican food and tequila cocktails.” A far cry from the Windmill…
While ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ was the product of intense judgement, almost completely facing inwards (guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith completely relearned how to play guitar for the record, dissatisfied with his own skill) on ‘Food For Worms’ the band didn’t take their foot off the gas just because they finally figured out how to relax a little. For the first time, Steen sought out a vocal coach to retool his performance throughout the album, to think more carefully about the lyrics he’d chosen. The band was at the forefront of a wave of acts favouring part-spoken word, part-bellow, part-poem, part-hum in songs that until then were almost always, well, sung – allowing for loose, erratic and surprising turns. But this album needed a little more focus.
“It was more like therapy than anything else,” Steen says of his sessions with vocal coach Rebecca Phillips, which included an in-studio visit while Shame recorded ‘Orchid’. “It wasn’t going to change anything drastically, but we actually spoke about what we’re trying to say, or do. There’s a level of detachment usually – you want it to be personal so it can be truthful, but you have to detach yourself so you can sing it.” Steen pauses, learning from Phillips to consider each word and, he adds, she helped break up the band’s “very male environment” that decides so much. “We’d been playing so much last year that it got to the detachment stage where you’re not actually thinking about what you’re saying anymore – you’re just on the melody, or how you’re trying to sing it. But those conversations are important.”
“Viagra Boys might be fucking caners… but they’re productive as fuck” – Charlie Steen
Conversations in the studio, among the band, across the label, are what have cemented Shame’s priorities for the ‘Food For Worms’ era. Steen acknowledges that priorities shifted from the moment ‘Songs Of Praise’ came out into the world – so where does that leave the band now, third time lucky, for their current ambitions? “Definitely party less,” Forbes says a little too quickly, as he and Steen reflect on their recent co-headline tour with “fucking caners” Viagra Boys across the US. But the intention for the music still stands: getting the best out of Shame.
“When we started out we went about it in a pretty teenage way,” says Steen. “We didn’t have the pressure. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re playing a 15-minute set at 11pm at a festival in Wolverhampton? Let’s get fucking hammered.’ But now we just want to deliver the best show possible. We’ve been all over America and Europe and the UK, we’re not seeing and doing everything for the first time anymore. We just want to focus on the band.” Still, the four weeks on the road with Viagra Boys did teach Shame a thing or two, surprisingly, about their work ethic, aligning with Steen’s desire to steer clear of past mistakes and keep the pace up.
“They might be on it all the time, but Viagra Boys are productive as fuck,” he says. “They’re so prolific, and they just told us to keep writing, from the very first day.” Steen also took notes on their co-headliner’s “fucking amazing” live setup – Shame have always prided themselves on putting on quite the show (they launched ‘Food For Worms’ aboard the Tamesis Dock, a sweaty little boat bobbing on the Thames) but are keen to raise the stakes, now that their record is much more them. “Everyone’s seen a show where you can tell the band isn’t enjoying themselves, and it just makes it uncomfortable,” he says. “What’s the point of doing it? Get a job to actually make some money.”
Shame have always had more on the brain than money. First it was the scene, then the soul of the frontman, but now it’s just about the synergy in band itself and how to put on a fucking good show – which will culminate this spring with the band’s long overdue headline show at O2 Academy Brixton, once all the seeds have started to grow. Insecurities about what being a pioneer of post-punk even means thawed across an endless tour, cabin fever cooled as the world reopened. And what remains is Shame. And us. On either side of a stage. Steen topless, Finerty rolling around, Green and Smith frowning into their mics, Forbes head down and shirt off. And in the heaving crowd, the worms enjoying every last crumb.
Shame’s ‘Food For Worms’ is released February 24 on Dead Oceans